Top Crop Manager

Features Bioenergy Biomass
NWF says biofuel crops can become invasive species

Apr. 11, 2012 - Invasive species are a problem across the planet, and a new report from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) indicates that good biofuel crops can also make extremely successful invaders.

The report, entitled Growing Risk: Addressing the Invasive Potential of Bioenergy Feedstocks explores the challenges and policy solutions surrounding the use of non-native and potentially invasive bioenergy crops.

Invasives are a species - either animal, plant or insect - that are not from a particular location, but are introduced through an external method (such as through human involvement). As a consequence of lacking predators or other natural control methods, the species grow out of control, like pythons in the Florida everglades or the Mountain Pine Beetle in British Columbia.

According to the report, there are a few examples of bioenergy crops that are known to be invasive or have the potential to become so if given the opportunity.

  • Giant reed is being used as a bioenergy crop the Southern US, despite the fact that it has been known to invade important riparian ecosystems and displace habitat for native species in states across the southern half of the country (the photo at the top of this page shows its spread in Texas)
  • Reed canarygrass, which is considered to be one of the most harmful invasive species in America’s wetlands, rivers, and lakes, is being proposed for cultivation as a bioenergy feedstock in several areas, including the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
  • Cylindro, a type of algae that is associated with toxic algal blooms in the Great Lakes region, is just one of many non-native or modified strains of algae under consideration for bioenergy, even though the fast growth rate of algae and the inherent difficulty in containing them is a major concern.
  • Napier grass, also called elephant grass, has been listed as an invasive plant in Florida and described as one of the most problematic weeds in the world, and yet BP is  developing a cultivated variety as an energy crop in the Gulf Coast Region.

In addition, the Chinese tallow, kudzu, Eurasian watermilfoil, and common reed are all being considered by different organizations.

According to Aviva Glaser, the legislative representative in agriculture policy from the NWF, worldwide invasive species are rare, as what may be invasive in one area may not stand a chance in the other. "For example, napier grass is a species that is currently being grown in Florida. It is known to have invaded a number of areas of Florida already and has been identified as a high probability of becoming invasive on weed risk assessment, but the risk of it becoming invasive in Canada is quite slim, as the species is freeze-intolerant and can be killed with even a light layer of frost."

While this problem has been around for many years in the scientific community, the public has remained relatively ignorant of the threat because of the huge expansion of biomass technology and their crops in a very short time.

The report lists a number of preventative measures to help minimize the threat of invasive biomass species for producers, consumers and government. The first and most important preventative method according Glaser is to focus on prevention and choose feedstocks that have low invasive potential throughout the whole harvesting cycle.

"The NWF also recommends rigorous monitoring, early detection and rapid response protocols on the state and federal levels to help reduce the risk," she said. "Finally, it is important to stress that there are a number of options for developing advanced bioenergy using ecologically beneficial feedstocks, including native grasses and waste materials."
 
In the near future, the NWF plans to present their findings at scientific conferences and hopefully implement policies to reduce the risk of invasive bioenergy crops, but the risk is ever-present.

“Invasive species cost taxpayers billions of dollars every year and put ecosystems and wildlife at risk,” says Glaser. “Proper caution must be taken to minimize the risk of invasion and ensure that the next generation of bioenergy does not fuel the next invasive species problem.”

For more information on preventing bioenergy crops from becoming invasive, you can download the full report at: Growing Risk: Addressing the Invasive Potential of Bioenergy Feedstocks.